Chrissy McLean, left, program coordinator at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, works with Kim Post in piecing together the rib cage of an orca. Kim Post is the sister of Lee Post, who is overseeing the reconstruction project.
by MARK ST.J. COUHIG
Back in January 2002 an orca whale was found dead in shallow water just offshore in Sequim Bay.
The female was accompanied, or so it seemed, by a 20-year-old male who after several efforts was towed to presumed safety in deeper waters.
The story made headlines across the country.
Nine years later the skeleton of the female, designated “orca CA189,” is being pieced back together at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.
Lee Post, a specialist in the craft from Homer, Alaska, is spending a month in Port Townsend supervising the project.
The work-in-progress is open to the public this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Natural History Exhibit at Fort Worden State Park.
Post said his day job is running a bookstore — he found this special line of work almost by accident.
“I worked in a small museum and 30 years ago I put together a whale. It was fun, so I started doing it over and over. And then I wrote the manuals.”
Post has written 10 manuals on the subject of piecing together animal skeletons, from birds to moose to whales. That’s how Libby Palmer, Orca Project manager at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, happened upon him.
Palmer assumed there must be a book on the subject. She found one of Post’s manuals in the center’s own library.
Arrangements were made; Post flew down and was handed “a pile of bones.” As many as 25 volunteers have aided him in the reconstruction effort.
Palmer said, “It’s like putting together a 3-D jigsaw puzzle.”
A single steel bar, bent to the proper curvature, holds the long backbone and tail together. The individual vertebrae are spaced by silicon caulk that simulates cartilage.
The smaller bones, including the ribs, are strung together with heavy wire.
Palmer said Post and the volunteers are “doing extraordinary work.”
Citing a recent comment by Sequim marine mammal veterinarian Pete Schroeder, Palmer said CA189 may be the “most studied orca ever.”
The results have been interesting.
“We knew after the nec-ropsy that it was highly contaminated with DDT and PCBs,” Palmer said. A CAT scan later revealed additional pathologies. The left half of the skull was severely deteriorated, including several holes. That may be the result of some form of osteoporosis, Palmer said, but it’s “probably an infection or an abscess.”
As part of the reconstruction, Palmer had two artists rebuild half of the skull, leaving the more heavily damaged side as it was found. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency loaned a well-preserved and intact skull to the center to aid in the reconstruction.
Chrissy McLean, program coordinator, said after the carcass was recovered in 2002 the whale was buried in manure for six years. She said letting bacteria do the messy work of cleaning up the oil and flesh is today’s method of choice for this kind of work.
Once the bones were dug up, they were brought to NOAA’s Marine Mammals Laboratory in Seattle where they were “cataloged and cleaned.”
They were brought back to the peninsula last winter and spent the past summer in the sun to complete the process.
Final resting place
When the reconstruction work is complete, CA189 will move into its own home, a new exhibit hall at the center.
Palmer said the center is working to raise $1,250,000 to build the 1,200 square-foot addition to the current facility. So far, she said, they have raised more than $400,000 for the project.
She noted that while the center is located in Fort Worden State Park, it receives no funding from the park.
Palmer is hoping to gather more information about the orca and is asking for photos of the whale or stories. These can be e-mailed to email@example.com. Please put “Libby” in the subject line.
Reach Mark Couhig at firstname.lastname@example.org.